As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The second batch of Offseason Primers will feature Metropolitan Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks offseason.
Chicago Blackhawks Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
Chicago has been a team in flux for the past few seasons. General manager Stan Bowman is trying to retool the team’s roster after years of success took a toll on the squad. He’s had many busy offseasons recently, trying to field a competitive team while toying with the team’s cap structure. Luckily for Bowman, this offseason should be a bit easier on him. Chicago’s list of pending free agents is rather short, meaning that Bowman won’t have too much on his plate. Their only unrestricted free agents are Corey Crawford, Anton Wedin, Joseph Cramarossa, and T.J. Brennan.
Chicago’s restricted free agents make up a pretty shortlist, too. Drake Caggiula, Dominik Kubalik, Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Strome, Malcolm Subban, Joni Tuulola, Alexandre Fortin, Jacob Nilsson, and Ian McCoshen are their RFAs.
Salary Cap Outlook
While Chicago Blackhawks don’t have a huge plate of free agents to re-sign this off-season, they do have some big names. That will pose some serious salary constraints. Chicago only has $7.35 million in cap space open for this offseason, according to the team’s CapFriendly page. They most definitely won’t be able to retain everyone, and some players may need to be shuffled around or traded out.
Normally, having a Calder Trophy finalist on your team is a good thing. Unfortunately, Kubalik’s rookie season came in a contract year, and he’ll command a hefty price to be re-signed. It leaves Chicago with very little cap room to maneuver with otherwise, leading to the probable departure of the franchise stalwart Crawford.
Despite being 35 years old, Crawford has still managed to stay at the top of his game. A two-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Jennings Trophy winner, he was a bright spot on an otherwise disappointing Chicago squad this year. Despite posting a 16-20-3 record, Crawford was able to record a .917 save percentage and a stellar .641 quality start percentage.
Crawford will have no issue finding a home on the open market. However, he won’t likely be viewed as a full-time starter anymore. Age and injuries have still taken a toll on his game, and Crawford is most likely more suitable in a tandem role.
A former first-round pick, Koekkoek has crashed and burned at the NHL level. While he had a decent offensive performance this season, he has long surpassed the point of ‘prospect’ and has become a depth NHL piece. Koekkoek would likely cost more to re-sign as compared to acquiring additional depth in free agency. The Blackhawks also have plenty of younger pieces that would be able to replace Koekkoek internally.
It’s unlikely that Chicago will issue Koekkoek a qualifying offer, and he’ll hit the open market.
Caggiula has become a rather dependable depth piece in this league despite being undrafted. Originally breaking onto the scene with the Oilers, Caggiula has been used heavily by the Blackhawks since his acquisition. Unfortunately, it seems as though Chicago overvalued him and has not put him in a position to succeed. His point totals with Chicago have consistently been disappointing.
Like Koekkoek, Caggiula will likely be replaced internally, possibly by Brandon Hagel. The Chicago Blackhawks have no need to retain him and pile on extra salary capital this offseason.
Once upon a time, the Los Angeles Kings drafted Kubalik in the seventh round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Six years later, Kubalik made his NHL debut with Chicago at age 24. He absolutely exploded, earning a 30-goal season and a Calder Trophy nomination. He set records as well, becoming the first NHL player to score five points in his playoff debut. That record was set against the Edmonton Oilers last Saturday.
Due to his stellar performance this year, Kubalik will cost the Blackhawks a pretty penny to retain. In order to save cap space, Chicago will likely offer Kubalik a one- or two-year deal in order to keep costs down and allow Kubalik to prove himself further. For a one-year deal, Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) predicts a $3.94 million cap hit. It leaves Chicago with a measly $3.41 million in cap space.
After the 2018-19 campaign saw things finally begin to turn around for the embattled Strome, his performance this year was notably less impressive. He really found his groove with the Blackhawks last year, posting 51 points in 58 games after being traded from the Arizona Coyotes. His totals dropped sharply this season, posting only 38 points in the same amount of games.
He’s still shown flashes of promise, so it’s not an incredibly hot take to assume that Strome still has room to grow. However, his inconsistency at this point in his career still has to be cause for concern. Like Kubalik, the Blackhawks will likely give Strome a short-term deal in order to allow him another opportunity to prove himself. For that one-year length, Evolving-Hockey projects a $3.01 million deal. It leaves Chicago with only $400,000 in cap room.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Unfortunately for Chicago, the salary situation created by the monster contracts of players like Brent Seabrook has significantly impeded their ability to improve the roster. That trend will continue this offseason for the Chicago Blackhawks, as their meagre cap space makes it impossible to add on the free-agent market.
Chicago will need to look for a revitalization of Duncan Keith‘s game. They’ll also need to look for NHL-calibre goaltending from Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. It’s unlikely Chicago sees much improvement from their performance this season.
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